Friday, June 24, 2011

Meditation and Metaphors

Who hasn't thought about meditating? And why not? I've only ever heard good things about its benefits. Yet, like the author of Eat, Pray, Love, learning how to do it presents problems. Emptying ones mind of thoughts is nigh impossible. And if you do happen to do it, for like one second, then what? So, when I was invited to join a beginner's class in meditation about six months ago, I was happy to try it, and it has turned out to be a very meaningful part of my life.

There are many kind of meditation, but the one I've been introduced to is Taoist. According to my instructor/leader, "The Taoist practice is based upon cultivating a surrendered relationship to one's own intuitive knowing, and using energy in alignment with that to help/heal oneself and others."

So, what have I learned? How to sit, how to bow in, how to position my hands, how to calm the mind and "stop the tapes," how to breathe, how to listen, how to focus on different important points in the body, how to make an intention, how to "read" another person, how to give energy as well as receive it, how to experience the many levels of depth in meditation, how to love it. All of this in just about a dozen sessions! It's pretty amazing, and I'm sure this is just the tip of the iceberg. I'm still just "Beyond Beginners."

Like many things, meditation is very personalized. People come to it for different reasons, they experience it differently, and they take different things away. I didn't know what to expect, or what I wanted to get out of it, so I quickly made something up like "focus and direction" when asked about that. I'm not sure that's what I've gotten, but I have gotten many other things: acceptance, calm, energy, enlightenment, patience, and knowledge, for instance. I've learned that there are many layers to meditation, from thought to emotion to energy to spirit to connection to the universe. I've learned that you let it happen; you don't force it. Emotions will spill out when the boxes you have locked them in open. It's useful to just "sit with" the feelings and see what happens. I've had tears streaming down my face at times without even knowing why. Deep joy and deep sadness have both visited me. Energy can be transferred to another person. I've done it and it doesn't deplete my own. In fact, I feel more energized. It is possible to see and feel things about other people and for them to do so for me. No matter how long I meditate, when, or where, it's always helpful. The more I practice it, the more I learn.

Meditation is made up of metaphors, signs, and symbols. They might be colors, a feeling (warmth, pain, etc.), movement (in my case, lots of it), sound (some people are very vocal with spontaneous sound), places (a basement, the ocean, a mountain), images (light, figures, animals, water, a rainbow, a dog). It's amazing because they are not forced; they just appear. The challenge might be to make sense of them.

One little story: One time I was meditating with another person, touching back to back. Several things appeared to me, but one particularly odd one was cowboys. Several times, cowboys appeared in front of my mind. (Note: I never think about them.) When I shared this with the other person, whom I barely knew at all, I expressed my puzzlement. She said it wasn't surprising to her, at all, because her family came from Oklahoma and was filled with cowboys and Native Americans! Don't know how/why that happened, but it's pretty cool. Maybe I'll get a job at the Renaissance Festival next year.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Demise of the Martini

I learned to like martinis from my dad. He could shake up the perfect martini for a pre-dinner cocktail and make it look easy as pie. I think that's part of what made it easy to drink, too. Now, I'm talking about real martinis--with gin and vermouth and olives--not these silly fake ones that they call martinis. It's often difficult nowadays to get an original martini at a restaurant or bar. They keep trying to pass off drinks with chocolate, pomegranate, lemonade, and who knows what else as martinis. They often have no "real" martini on the "martini menu." How did this happen?

I blame it on marketing, of course. (Sorry, Jack.) People like the "idea" of a martini. They like the sound of it. They like the fancy glass it is served in. And they like sweet and pretty drinks for nine or more bucks each. Yes, it's the "martini personalized experience" that people want, not the gin, vermouth, and olives.

So, I find it hard to get a real martini these days. More often than not, the bartender messes it up and I have to return it. It started a few years ago at a so-called American on-base bar in Sigonella, Sicily. Unfortunately, the bartenders were Italian. They used sweet vermouth instead of dry and had no olives to boot! I got fed up, went to the commissary and came back with a jar. At that time, I forgave them, for they were Italians, and what did they know about martinis? I found that several of my female friends there were also martini lovers, AND they knew how to make them perfectly! So we had several TGIF "real martini" parties in Sicily, complete with the vermouth sprayer, chilled glasses, gin, and, of course, olives! (See photos!)

Recently, I've had to send back a lot of martinis, it seems. One place gave me just gin (no vermouth or olives). Others fail to add the olives (it's not a martini without). Many forget the "rocks" and try to serve it to me "up," which is never what I order. So, what is it? Untrained bartenders? Inattentive waitpeople? I'm not being clear? I would estimate the amount of time I actually get what I ordered on the first try to be about 50%. So, not only is it hard to find a "real" martini, but it's as hard to get one!

Mosaics and Metaphors

I don't remember when and where I first became enchanted with mosaics, but it happened sometime between 1990 and 2000. Was it the first time I saw original Roman mosaics, or Byzantine, or Arab? Was it Tunisia, Turkey, Cyprus, Aqueleia near Venice, the Vatican, Pompeii, Bath (England), a German museum, or another place? I went on to search for the really important ones, driving from Germany all the way to Ravenna, Italy, for a weekend to see the "City of Mosaics." I searched out the Chora in Istanbul and stood in awe of these ancient Christian mosaics inside a church-turned-mosque-turned-museum. In Rome, I tracked down obscure churches with the oldest mosaics. When I moved to Sicily, I was lucky to be near the famous UNESCO Roman site of Villa Armerina (more photos HERE) and the Monreale Cathedral near Palermo, as well as dozens of other mosaic masterpieces on the island.

Anyway, at some point, I became interested in doing mosaics, perhaps when I saw different instances of their being repaired or created. There is little time for doing anything when you are a full-time teacher, but what a great idea for retirement! Luckily, I retired in Atlanta, a city of 5 million, where one can find classes or lessons on just about anything. Mosaic beginner classes were found, and early in 2010, I began.

So, it turns out, mosaics are like soccer--easy to learn, impossible to master. The good points about it are (1) there is no "perfect," (2) it's okay, even good, to break things, and (3) you can mosaic anything rigid (except people). Some people don't even have a plan or design when they start; they just let it evolve as it happens. Basically, you stick things (tile, glass, stones, broken plates) to a rigid surface (which can even be rounded, like a flower pot), and then fill in the spaces between the pieces with "grout." Grout makes everything look better, even almost professional.

I take my mosaics classes at the Spruill Center for the Arts, and I actually travel OTP (outside the perimeter) for them! In Atlanta, that's like going to the outer limits of space. Spruill, however, is just a big outside the perimeter, and it's such a great place, it's worth the driving adventure. I have hugely enjoyed the laid-back, non-threatening atmosphere of the class, the knowledgeable and supportive instructor, a wide range of classmates, and the satisfaction of learning and improving with each project. I have completed about six projects and am increasingly happier with each one. I am most interested in re-creating the old Roman designs I have seen and photographed, like this tabletop that I made most recently.

When I was teaching in Sicily, I took my AVID (college prep) students on a field trip to the famous mosaics at Villa Armerina. Upon our return, I engaged them in writing a metaphor essay in which they compared their lives to a mosaic. The results of that trip and writing lesson were fabulous. See a brief article HERE. And perhaps that is what draws me ultimately to mosaics. You take a lot of little pieces and put them together into something meaningful. I hope that when the mosaic of my life is done, it has meaning, too.

Small segment of wall mosaic at Monreale, Sicily.